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Obama, Merkel and Putin are at war with reason

In a perfectly reasonable world, the entire economic future of Greece and Italy would not depend on provincial election outcomes in the northern German state of Schleswig-Holstein. Nor would the severity of Iran's dictatorship be determined by the sensibilities of a small cluster of Republicans along some dusty road in Winnemucca, Nev.

But this isn't a perfectly reasonable world. It is, for the most part, a democratic world, and when the calendar turns from governing to campaigning, tactics tend to trump reason, and the global falls to the local.

We're at an unfortunate confluence: Just as the world is facing a set of crises, some of its most influential countries have entered election periods. The results are far from ideal.

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Barack Obama and Iran: The current showdown with Iran, involving escalating threats from Washington, Jerusalem and Tehran, began in earnest when Mr. Obama's strategy of engagement and negotiations broke down after a single attempt in October of 2010. It had been a well-considered strategy: Iran was in a position of weakness both domestically and regionally, and intelligence assessments showed that its nuclear program was little more than a bargaining chip. Imitating Ronald Reagan's approach to Moscow, Mr. Obama had the pieces in place to draw Tehran away from the brink.

But an election was pending, and American swing voters wanted shows of force, not attempts at détente. As a result, Mr. Obama "has permitted the debate to take place on the right's turf," writes Trita Parsi, an Iran scholar who's just published an analysis of the President's diplomatic strategy. "In doing so, he has betrayed his own platform of pursuing 'smart' rather than just 'tough' policies." We can only hope reason will return in November.

Angela Merkel and Europe: The German Chancellor, I'm repeatedly told by her advisers, fully understands what needs to be done to put the euro zone back in order. But, they say, it's just that she can't – not until after the next election. And in Germany these days, there's always a next election.

So Ms. Merkel pretends the risk to Europe is hyperinflation, and calls for spending cuts and tight money. Her response to the downgrading of debt in nine euro zone countries last month was calls for more austerity, even direct German management of the Greek economy – even though ratings agencies had acknowledged that the larger problem was balance-of-payment inequalities and flagging competitiveness. Instead of facing that, she tries to win over voters with a new minimum wage and an anti-nuclear policy.

German political scientist Michael Miebach says Ms. Merkel is following "a clever strategy" in which her "Protestant poverty aesthetic" disguises a deliberate evasion of the expensive realities she must face: "The Chancellor is extremely flexible with regard to her political positions, and is able to use this to undercut opposition stances."

But her coalition's in trouble, and she needs to regain a majority. There's an election in the state of Schleswig-Holstein on May 6, then one in Saarland, and then a national vote next year. Talk of expensive realities would drive voters away. So Europe continues to hang in the balance.

Vladimir Putin and Syria: Russia's interests in the Middle East are not, by themselves, all that different from those of Western countries. Moscow seeks functioning markets there, and wants some influence. It has different alliances but is willing to acquiesce in the name of larger stability, as we saw in last year's United Nations Security Council decision on Libya.

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But stability is no longer Mr. Putin's goal. Facing a March 4 election, he's selling himself as a potential president who will fight for Slavic interests against Western intrusions – and this often means siding with foreign autocrats. We saw that clearly this week, when he ruled out not only any Security Council resolution that threatens war with Damascus (probably a reasonable move) but also any that imposes serious sanctions or even any that calls on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down. Mr. Putin seems to be resisting anything that might end the bloodshed.

He's in an election bind, too, with his United Russia party facing unprecedented criticism. But unlike his U.S. and German counterparts, he confronts a larger democratic threat, one he shares with Mr. al-Assad: the prospect of a grassroots protest movement bent on bringing real democracy. That may keep Mr. Putin in campaign mode long after the March vote, and put him permanently at war with reason.

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About the Author
International-Affairs Columnist

Doug Saunders writes the Globe and Mail's international-affairs column, and also serves as the paper's online opinion and debate editor. He has been a writer with the Globe since 1995, and has extensive experience as a foreign correspondent, having run the Globe's foreign bureaus in Los Angeles and London.He was born in Hamilton, Ontario, and educated in Toronto. More

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